Tag Archives: the triumph of love

Geoffrey Hill, Hopkins and the working poem.

Hill’s final collection, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Julian, is blurbed as a ‘meditation on the nature of poetry’ and Poem 71 seems to live up to that promise;

A working poem has, or is, its own microclimate; certainly, in Britain it does so
        posses its nous. Some of us may be distinguished thus, pre-structuralists
        of our antic cause; the streamlet's cluck and treble through meadow and
        arable; gold gobs of mistletoe, the spoiler, the spoils, heaped in Tenbury
        market to go

Something here to be garbled if half understood. I am invoking presence not
        mood. Mood - almost at first standing - abandons us while, in absence,
        presence remains I state it crudely enough for small gains.

But it is not, even so, the same as the 'strain of time' which, according to that
         Jesuit, (resolute, glad, forlorn), draws from us the psychic skin that bound
          us to find the world tolerable, ourselves credible; and reels it in: alien
          a photonegative of all earthly loves; the Aurora palpitating absently
            apart in its waves and coils.

How, knowing this, he could write 'Hurrahing in Harvest' I can barely
          conceive, though it refelcts and reveals 'Spelt from Sybil's Leaves'
          mutually audible, darkly lucent, impenetrable, starkly provident.


I’m particularly fond of the way in which Hill writes, in both his criticism and verse, about the nature and role of verse. He’s previously described poems as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ and suggested that poems are best suited to memoriaiising the dead. On this occasion he appears to suggest that the poem is something apart and evoking a presence rather than a mood. The adjective ‘working’ can refer to something that is functioning as it should or;

Serving as the basis for further work; (of a theory, hypothesis, etc.) that is sufficient for present purposes but is likely to be developed or refined later; provisional; (of a document, drawing, etc.) serving as a draft; preliminary, unfinished.

I’d suggest that it is the second of these that we are meant to attend to although a working poem can also be an effective poem. If we take the second definition then this can be applied not just to indivdual poetry but the entire body of poems that, from the beginning, have been developed and extended by subsequent generations.

I live in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight which has its very own microclimate by virtue of its position between St Boniface Down and the English Channel. Us locals are very pleased about this because it adds to our sense of individuality and apartness, we have our own plants and our own lizards and butterflies which we claim to be unique in the UK. Poem as microclimate may then be said to create and preserve elements which are special and specific to it. It may also perpetuate itself. I’m following the second and “chiefly British” definition of nous as:

Common sense, practical intelligence, ‘gumption’.

Of course, Hill would want the British poem to retain some notion of common sense because he is a patriot and seems to subscribe to this odd view of British culture as the sole repository of plain and unadorned thought. We then have this quite startling description of some of ‘us’ poets being identified by the sound of a running stream and the sparkle of mistletoe piled up at a provincial market. The ‘cluck and treble’ and ‘gold gobs’ give emphasis to Hill’s stature as our finest nature poet.

Turning to mood and presence, I don’t find this convincing because it seems too grandiose and because the notion of presence remaining in its absence smacks of religiosity rather than poem things. It would also seem that the idea of invocation is used to gesture towards the presence of Christ in the christian mass. This isn’t to deny that poems can create a sense of presence, I get this strongly from David Jones In Parenthesis and from Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P and from many pieces of music but I don’t experience this in a religious or spiritual sense. It’s more about being able to identify with and personally relate to what’s being expressed than any notion of wider powers. One of the strengths for me of poetry is its ability to compress and distill complex ideas and emotions into a single line or phrase but I don’t think that we should try to mystify things further.

The Jesuit is Gerald Manley Hopkins and I have to state that I’ve never been able to see any value in this poet’s work. Because of Hill’s enthusiasm and advocacy, I’ve spent more than a little time with the verse in an attempt to grasp what it is that I’m missing. I’ve also read quite a bit about Hopkins only to decide that I don’t like him much as a man either. Up until now I haven’t been at all familiar with either of the two poems mentioned above but they are both remarkable enough for the Hopkins penny to begin to drop.

The third paragraph’s apparent denial of what Hopkins may have said about poetry’s power to strip us of our comforting delusions sets up the contrast between two poems doing very different things.

Hurrahing in Harvest turns out to be a joyous description and celebration of God’s presence in the world and is brimful of humanity and faith. The line “Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?” could be read as too cloying but is somehow saved by the insistent alliteration. Again this is subjective, I’m irrationally fond of words starting with the same letter and this is particularly pleasing to my ear. I’d also like to draw attention to the use of ‘realer’ which seems to make the line work well. The poem’s final line almost falls over into kitsch but saves itself by the strength of what it is saying- especially the repeated hurling for him.

Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves is a bit more complicated and much darker. It contains most of the baseline tricks of the poetry trade but I’m not sure that there’s that much invocation going on. There is however a concluding line which describes life as a torturer’s rack;

Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, | thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

Hill concludes by pointing up this apparent contrast and claiming that one poem ‘reflects and reveals’ the other. We are left with four separate qualities, two of which are a bit tired (‘mutely audible’ and ‘impenetrable’) and two others which will resonate with me for days.

Geoffrey Hill’s Riot of Poetry Similes

This is from the, probably self-penned, blurb on the back of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:

Thematically the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of its evident helplessness.

As someone who has followed these meditations for the last 15 years, this claim holds great interest both as a reader and practitioner. I’m therefore now pondering on what Sir Geoffrey decided to leave us with on this reasonably crucial subject.

One of the abiding features of the poetry is Hill’s tendency to show off, with regard to poetry, his The Triumph of Love has this:

Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That's
beautiful. Once more? a sad and angry 
consolation.

This may indeed be beautiful but there are very few poets who would have the front to point this out within the same stanza. This particular simile and Hill’s claim that literary and artistic practice require “a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead…..” have acted as ‘markers’ for my relationship with the work as a whole. With The Book, however, we now have many more ways of thinking about the nature of the Poem and mulling over its strange helplessness.

I still haven’t paid enough attention to this sequence of 271 parts, a process that will take months but I have selected some of the more startling and provocative observations. This is the last sentence from Poem 149;

No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from
     limescale under the rim.

Scurrilous, deliberately offensive but, he may have a point. What is lazily referred to, by me and many others, as the mainstream can be sad to be said to embody both of these qualities. I’ve long been of the view that this particular kind of output is inherently doomed to a bland mediocrity because its voice is strangled into a bridle deemed to be proper and fit. i’m therefore in sympathy with the view expressed, even though it’s more of a confession than an observation. Hill isn’t saying that this work is burdened by such a stain but that it seems to him that this is the case. The implications being that his work avoids the upright and uptight and is thus unburdened by this mark.

I have to confess that this made me smile a lot because it seems to capture the best of Hill’s mischievous barbs, the limescale under the rim being particularly apt.

This being Geoffrey Hill, we also have the realy quite serious observations with their amended syntax, These are from 213 and 239;

We do well on the whole to unscramble continuity from tradition. Continuity may be more important; the poem must affirm portent to make gravity tremble.

Poem as one case of post partum depression, in some part with cause yet
without reason.

Both of these are brow furrowing, in the interests of context, I should provide the rest of each poem but this would only further cloud the issues that appear to be at stake. With the first, separating out tradition from continuity is tricky in the extreme, both relate to the past  and to mental and physical things that proceed through time. Traditions can die out whereas continuities, by definition, keep going on. Much of Hill’s work is concerned with these persistent phenomena. His Mercian Hymns  of 1971 sets the reign of the early medieval King Offa of Mercia firmly in the 20th century.

I have Hill as a quirkily sentimental traditionalist. This is a fuzzy impression rather than a clear and precise notion, nevertheless I am a bit startled by this assertion and what follows. A quick glance at the OED reveals that ‘portent’ has two main definitions: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen” and “A prodigy, a wonder, a marvel; something exceptional or extraordinary.” Taking the (now rare) second definition as the one intended, it would appear that the role of the poem is to assert and confirm the wondrous and exceptional nature of someone or thing. Needless to say, making ‘gravity tremble’ is a great sounding phrase but doesn’t mean very much when thought about. If Hill means to have ‘a great effect’ then he should be clearer, in my admittedly pedantic view.

I would however draw attention to the other qualities of the above, it starts with an equivocation – mostly, it would be a good thing if we…. which reads like the opening of a gentle suggestion rather than the clear imperative that it ends with. Portents as signs of things that are about to happen populate most religious texts and it may be that this alludes, at least in part to the birth of Christ.

It is safe to suggest that Hill has never experienced a post partum depression for obvious reasons. This doesn’t prevent him from putting together one of his less than brilliant witticisms with the play on ‘part’ and the ‘without reason’ quip. I like to think the point being made is a serious one, that the poem has its source of inspiration but this then gets extrapolated  into something that may not be entirely rational / reasonable.  As someone with some experience of severe depression, I would however like to point out that we depressives are rarely without ‘reason’ indeed when depressed we often have a more realistic view of things because we can’t put on the rose-tinted glasses what ‘normal’ people rely on.

To conclude, this is all of Poem 129;

Poem as enforcer of the realm. Poem as hostage to straws that overwhelm.
Give me back the stocky tu quoque of the baroque.
Poem as slow-burning arquebus fuse in a re-enactment universe.
Poem as nightmare stepmother in the Brothers Grimm. Poem as loquacious
sightseer at an unspeakable crime.
Poem reluctant to give its own name even though lately granted immunity
from recrimination.
Poem at home under its fig tree and with a thriving pigsty.
Poem as hapless amateur in competition with ‘Summertime’.

I hope that I’m not alone in being delighted by this, it strikes me as both incredibly inventive and very, very clever. I can even forgive the tu quoque  / baroque device because the rest is Hill at his best. The first line encapsulates for me the poet’s dilemma, we’d love to speak truth to power, to act as moral assayer in the courts of kings and queens yet we are also plagued by those small blemishes and imperfections that, in our heads at least, ruin what we make. I’m going to skim gracefully over the second line because it doesn’t have a simile and move on to this about-to-go-off gun in this recreated and thus fake universe. The arquebus, the forerunner of most firearms, came into use in the early 15th century and  weren’t very good. Until the end of the 16th century there was still some debate as to whether arquebusiers were more or less effective than bowmen. I therefore have this image of Something Bad about to happen when the sparkly b movie flame eventually ignites the gun. It now occurs to me that the flame may never reach the gun, that it may burn ineptly forever being harmless and menacing at the same time. My daughter’s a keen re-enacter and has been since her mid teens so I know something of the painstaking care that goes in to getting the historical details as right as possible. A re-enactment universe would also be an equally synthetic version of moment of time past but on a much, much larger scale, one that would completely overwhelm this dodgy firearm. As both a reader and a wannabe poet, this line resonates and sets off ideas and makes me smile a lot.

The wicked stepmother is a little brow furrowing, as I recall it, the tale involves a magic mirror and a woman who will stop at nothing to remain the ‘fairest in the land’ and so makes several attempts to kill Snow White, her step-daughter. She is eventually exposed and dies a horrid death at Snow White’s wedding. The ‘nightmare’ describing word, if that’s what it is, is unusual in this and most other contexts.  This being the case, I’ve scurried off to the OED which has this for the adjective; “Having the quality of a nightmare; extremely distressing, frightening, or oppressive; nightmarish. Later in weakened use: terrible, awful, fraught with difficulty” which is helpful.  There are in “The Book” a couple of occasions where Sir Geoffrey refers to his use of obscure historical figures and seems to take some pride in doing this. His previous response to the oft repeated charge of difficulty is that “life is difficult” and that his work is a reflection of that.

Hill was known for his frequent use of the OED and will no doubt have been aware that ‘fraught with’ is defined as; “(a) attended with, carrying with it as an attribute, accompaniment, etc.;  (b) ‘big’ with the promise or menace of; destined to produce”. The second of these makes me grin. I find Hill’s work, as with Celan, Prynne and David Jones, to be big with the menace of difficulty which, for me, is a Very Good Thing.

I’ll leave speculation about the Wicked Queen, except to note that relationships with Step-mothers can also be ‘big’ in the same kind of way.

I write quite a lot of material on unspeakable crimes (Derry, Newtown, Ferguson) and their implications and often feel queasy  about whether what I’m doing is some kind of atrocity tourism. On first reading, this seemed to be an easy cliche but it now seems uncannily prescient.

The poem that’s reluctant to identify itself is probably one that disguises its meaning and is criticised initially for this crime but rater gains recognition and praise. This can also be applied to Hill himself who had to put up with all kinds of barbs but was eventually elevated to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, the highest accolade in the UK.

Hill was the finest nature poet of his generation and the fig tree and the pig sty reflect elements of the pastoral tradition in poetry. Perhaps both the sty and the type of tree contain an oblique barb or some degree of self deprecation.

I’m taking this particular Summertime to be the song from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in part because elsewhere in the sequence he confesses a new found liking for Thirties jazz.  From the mid-late nineties some of Hill’s work seemed to suggest that he wants to entertain us as some kind of music hall act. The poem’s aspiration to be culturally popular may be what is hinted at here, the later work is littered by very bad jokes which are certainly hapless. Gershwin’s setting of the DuBose Heyward poem is an example of genius in transforming something merely good into one of the most important and influential songs of all time.</em>

It hope I’ve shown here how Hill has given his readers much food for thought. This particular disturbance pervades through most of the poems and only rarely do the similes fall into clunkiness. As is expected with Hill, there are more than a few inconsistencies and some quite startling breaks with what has gone before. However, this is a much more fitting way to end a career than The Day Books appeared to be.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is published by the OUP and can be gotten from Amazon for sixteen of your finest English pounds. Buy it.

Poetic rupture and innovation.

One of the many challenging things that Michel Foucault said was that progress or innovation proceeds by means of catastrophic rupture rather than gradual change and I’ve been thinking about whether or not this applies to poetry and why some ruptures succeed whilst others fail.

There are two kinds of ruptures:

  • those poems that represent a significant break with the accepted notion of what poetry is;
  • those poems that are a significant move away from the poet’s previous work.

Many would argue that Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is the most obvious rupture in both senses and the most successful in terms of lasting influence. It is possible to see this poem as significantly and radically different from anything before it but I’ve always been of the muddle-headed view that there is a gradual and reasonably logicial progression from ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ through ‘Gerontion’ to the Ur-text itself. I’m not arguing that ‘The Waste Land’ wasn’t seen at the time as radically different from all that had gone before nor am I saying that it didn’t represent a significant break with the past but I don’t think that it came entirely out of the blue.

This is from ‘Prufrock’:

    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
    (They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, know them all-
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, 
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
       So how should I presume?

There’s a voice within ‘Prufrock’ that is both playfully and intently ambitious, a voice that has a keen interest in how the universe might be disturbed. I think I can also make a case for this early poem with its juxtaposition of the demotic and profound as more modernist than its successor. I’ll also confess to considering everything after ‘Prufrock’ as a bit of a decline.

Eliot had intended to begin ‘The Waste Land’ with ‘Gerontion’ but was dissuaded from doing so by Ezra Pound. I think this might illustrate the point that I am trying to make:

    The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
    Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
    The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
    Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                     I an old man,
   
    A dull head among windy spaces.
    Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign!'
    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
    Came Christ the tiger.

Given Eliot’s original intentions, it isn’t altogether surprising that many elements of the Waste Land are presaged here, my point is that the rupture isn’t as suddenly as we might think.

By way of contrast, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ was a complete break with what had gone before in his work and was completely out of step with the rest of English poetry of the time. The sequence is in prose and ostensibly concerns Offa, king of the Mercians, but does this by mixing the Anglo Saxon past with the 1971 present in a way that is incredibly accomplished and quite mysteriously evocative. Hill hasn’t published anything like it since and it doesn’t seem to have started any kind of trend. I was fourteen and busy reading ‘Crow’ in 1971 and completely missed this piece of brilliance until about 2005 but it still feels like a major break that should have had much greater effect.

The Prynne trajectory is much easier to trace. ‘Brass’ was also published in 1971 and contained this:

                 yet
    the immediate body of wealth is not
    history, body-fluid not dynastic. No
    poetic gabble will survive which fails
    to collide head-on with the unwitty circus
              no history running
                  with the French horn running
                         the alley-way, no
                  manifest emergence
              of valued instinct, no growth
                  of meaning & stated order:

Is a head-on collision with the unwitty circus also a rupture or is the essential thing about rupture that it renounces and/or ignores the circus? Does the recent publication of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ mark another significant rupture in Prynne’s work?

Geoffrey Hill isn’t after collisions but he also seems to hold his peers at arms-length, I can make a case for ‘The Triumph of Love’ as a sequence that breaks (ruptures) most of the rules and conventions yet still manages to be defiantly wonderful.

What Foucault didn’t mention was the stupidly high proportion of failed ruptures- those breaks with the past that are not followed by others but are nevertheless just as brilliant as those that succeed. Into this camp I’d place ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Sordello’ and ‘The Anathemata. There are those that would argue that Langland’s reputation is actually secure and the poem continues to attract critical acclaim but my point is that it wasn’t followed through by others in the same way as Chaucer, Hoccleve and Lydgate. John Skelton was probably deeply dislikeable as a man but his work stands apart from what preceded it and ‘Speke Parrot’ would mark a rupture in any decade but hasn’t influenced anybody since. ‘Sordello’ was a critical and popular disaster but it does shine out as the most ambitious and genuinely innovative poem in the Browning oeuvre- Ezra Pound claimed that he was the only person on the planet who fully appreciated it.

I’ve written many times about the criminal neglect of David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ but the fact remains that it hasn’t been followed and is currently in danger of being forgotten altogether even though some of us regard it as one of the very best poems of the last hundred years. The reasons for this are many and various but pride of place has been given to difficulty and/or obscurity. I’m more inclined to the view that it presented a major challenge to Eliot-inspired modernism and failed to find an audience because it didn’t ‘fit’.

We know come to the rupturist par excellence- Paul Celan’s later work marks a chasm between our current notions of what poetry can do and Celan’s view of what it must do. Most serious poets now recognise Celan as the greatest 20th century poet but few have been brave enough, with the honourable exception of Edmond Jabes to follow in his wake. It is impossible to overstate the violence of this particular rupture which began to tear its way to the surface in the late fifties and continued to Celan’s death in 1970. Suffice it to say that it’s body of work that rips apart all the usual notions of meaning and addresses language as a matter of survival and thinks of the poem carrying the quite desperate potential for an encounter in this struggle for life.

Both Prynne and Celan work at the extremes of ambiguity and allusion, both are rejected for their elitism and obscurity just as both are criticised for writing unpoetry. I’m still of the view that these are the names, above all others that we’ll remember in 200 years’ time.

Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA’:

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
hay
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes
out

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.

Rhetorical smoke and mirrors from George Herbert to Geoffrey Hill

“This figure consists in arranging words and thoughts out of the natural sequence, and is, as it were, the ttuest mark of vehement emotion. Just as people who are really angry or frightened or indignant, or are carried away by jealousy or some other feeling – there are countless emotions, no one can know how many – often put forward one point and then spring off to another with various illogical interpolations, and then whee round again to their original positions, while, under the stress of their encounter, like a ship before a veering wind, they lay their words first on one tack and then another and keep altering the natural order into innumerable variations – so, too, in the best prose writers the use of hyperbaton allows imitation to approach the effects of nature.”

The above is taken from ‘On the Sublime’ by the 1st century writer known as ‘Longinus’. I quote it at length because I’m about to have another dither in the George Herbert debate and I want to measure hyperbaton up against what Hill does to syntax. One of my more or less fixed views is that we would all benefit from greater expertise in rhetoric, that it’s too valuable and powerful tool to be left in the hands of lawyers and clerics and that poems that make effective use of rhetorical skills are usually good poems. As is usual, I’ve been of this view without having any more than an entirely superficial knowledge of what rhetoric might be able to do. This is more of a problem because I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about the English Renaissance yet one of its key planks was the renewed interest in and teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools and universities.

So, I didn’t know that hyperbaton was a recognised feature of rhetoric and that the disordering of syntax to indicate extremes of feeling had been in use for many, many years. Now that I do know I’ve given a bit more thought to the degree of deliberation in George Herbert’s outbursts and have cast a slightly different light on his recurring pleas for plain speaking. In addition I’ve had another look at Hill’s use of rhetorical devices in ‘The Triumph of Love’.

The George Herbert problem is one of authentic outpouring vs cynical manipulation- how much of Herbert’s blurted incoherence is in fact a cynical attempt to promote similar feelings in his readers? I think this matters because it is these sudden interjections that set Herbert’s work apart from most things before or since. I also have a personal disdain for cynically manipulative poetry (Lowell, Plath, Eliot, Larkin etc etc) and I wouldn’t want to think of Herbert in the same way. Herbert may have been a country priest attending to his rural flock but he had been a star pupil and student at Westminster School and at Trinity College. He also became deputy and then Cambridge university orator so we can surmise that he had more than a passing knowledge of and practice in things rhetorical. Given his aristocratic background, biographers have had some difficulty explaining Herbert’s decision to become a country priest and this social difference can be seen in the patrician tone adopted in much of his ‘A Priest to the Temple’ which is a prose manual for aspiring vicars.

I’ve previously expressed some concern about the amount of feigned incoherence that might be going on but I’ve alos recently come across the intriguing ‘Jordan II’:

When first my lines of heav'nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with a metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much less those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence?
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

This is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. Herbert is advocating speaking and writing plainly in praise of God rather than using convoluted thoughts ‘curling with metaphors’ but he is using rhetoric to make this anti-rhetorical point. Herbert is of course aware of this and also knows that many of his readers will be able to locate Sidney’s “Foole said my muse to me, looke in the heart and write’ at the heart of the poem. He would of course argue that the writing out of this sweetness is something that his parishioners could relate to far more than the ornate devices of the chattering classes.

So, is this a further example of Herbert’s manipulative skills or a genuine and finely wrought renunciation of fine words? Let’s start outside of the poetry and the huge social and cultural gap between this priest and his parishioners. From this perspective it is very likely that excessive use of complex phrasing and metaphors would result in a degree of bewilderment and resentment, it is also likely that rural parishioners would be very suspicious of someone of such high status becoming their priest. So, in order to be effective, Herbert would need to speak plainly and demonstrate the strength of his zeal by the occasional cries of devotion. This would make sense if he then went on to produce ‘plain’ poems of praise because these would mean more to his flock. However, he doesn’t do this but carries on writing complex and sophisticated poems which extol the virtue of plainness.

The discovery of hyperbaton led me back to Geoffrey Hill and Lachlan Mackinnon’s charge of tortured syntax. Sadly I have to report that this endeavour has taken an unexpected turn. I started with the annoying reference to epanalepsis in poem X in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and from then on things rhetorical seemed to be everywhere in the sequence. Some of these (The Turing contradiction in poem XVI, the references to ‘Laus et vituperatio) seem merely portentous but some of the longer (and more serious poems) seem to follow various rhetorical schema in a way that I hadn’t noticed before. Poem CXXV has this:

I have been working towards this for some time,
<em?Vergine bella. I am not too far from the end
[of the sequence - ED]. It may indeed be my last
occasion for approaching you in modes
of rhetoric to which I have addressed myself
throughout the course of this discourse. Custom

So, one of Hill’s finest sequences turns out to be a ‘discourse’ which is expressed in modes of rhetoric and I’m now going to have to re-read this and the rest (including ‘Odi Barabare’) with a different pair of eyes….

Reading ‘Difficult’ Poetry with Success. Prynne, Hill and David Jones.

“The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case
I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition
for successful reading.”

But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, not ready at all to
This leaving out business. On it hinges the very importance
of what's novel.
Or autocratic, or dense, or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not
ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall
not,

The first of these is from J H Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears’ and the second is from John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’ which was published in ‘Rivers and Mountains’ in 1966 and both appear to be saying the same thing. So, if two of the most important poets of the last fifty years have this lack of interest in the quest for meaning, what might a successful reading look like?

For me, ‘successful’ relates to feeling satisfied by the act of reading and this usually involves giving attention to a poem or part of a poem. It is the way I feel about reading attentively that is the marker for me. There are some contemporary innovative poets who produce work that doesn’t involve me, that doesn’t (for a variety of reasons) retain either my interest or attention. This is not to suggest that this work is inferior – it’s just that I’m not interested in it.

The problem of meaning (which used to concern me) is only one aspect of readerly attention/involvement and working out meaning tends to be a by-product of doing other things and being involved in other ways. I’m going to use the above poets to try and illustrate what I mean by this and how ‘success’ can occur in other ways.

Prynne is a good place to start and I’m currently paying attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ because it seems to mark a significant ‘turn’ in his output and because I find it compelling. The first reward that I get is in responding to the challenge which, for me, is altering the way that I absorb information. Prynne’s work demands a less linear (for the want of a better word) kind of attention and requires this adjustment to be made before reading rather than after. I like this because I can do it and I find doing it utterly absorbing. I’ve also found that I can apply this kind of attention to other things unrelated to either poetry or reading.

This is one of the shorter paragraphs from ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’:

                                       Can this be or was it moreover
for this incision in dropsy yes not ventral not assented sold OUT
in mere song-like retrieval, give way with no-name in appearance
decking as a whirling swarm of gnats is soft summer sun at the
edge of the outward forest, infolded not time after time still less
perpetual by false appearance which is the true-fast semblance of
falsity, indued and ever-doubtful. Our morning hymn this is, and
song at evening echo confuted by shared antagonism, implicit not
by next coming-to-be as the world is transformed in feature full
of folk saying what is it not, time-locked against spokes in the cycle
of saying so. Indicative ridiculous also, won't you come home
Bill Bailey before a toast and tea, scumbags! reptiles! the old folks
just better stay at home or lose their reason too, mine and yours
loaned against non-interest, souls implanted by necessity smooth
turning upon an axle you'd not know was not granted its near life
to be there, on-site in foam, I saw no less than these things
right up on the peremptory shore line.

I’ve quoted this at length because I can now show different kinds of involvement. The first of these is about identifying the individual phrases and working out what they might be doing. The first phrase asks a question which then appears to be answered with some qualification. This process is less arduous here than it is for most of the more recent Prynne, this seems to be making an effort towards greater coherence but there are still challenges – deciding what the Bill Bailey and old folks at home references are doing is something that would need a different kind of involvement (checking song lyrics) than the rest. For me, the most satisfying part is engaging with the way that some phrases point in a number of different directions at once and then trying to apply these to the whole. This passage contains these that are crying out for this kind of involvement;

  • incision in dropsy;
  • mere song-like retrieval;
  • appearance decking;
  • the outward forest;
  • true-fast semblance;
  • song at evening echo confuted;
  • spokes in the cycle of saying so;
  • souls implanted by necessity;
  • on-site in foam;
  • peremptory shore line.

Some of this involves looking at secondary word meanings and derivations, checking how each of these might relate to what’s going on around them and (in this work) bearing in mind the ‘reference cues’ printed at the end. All of this is absorbing and rewarding because it is possible to gain a sense of progress and some insight into other ways of thinking generally and doing poetry in particular. I must also mention the feeling of success that I get when I begin to grasp the structure and direction of the whole.

It is also important to stress that meaning comes way down on the list, I’m very comfortable in not knowing what ‘this’ and ‘it’ refer to in the first paragraph and accept that this will only be made clearer by the kind of attention that I’ve just described.

A successful reading of Geoffrey Hill doesn’t have the same qualities but it still requires attention and involvement. My first encounter with Hill was reading the first few pages of Comus on the bus on the way to work and realising that this was a poet who was confident in his abilities and quite precise in what he had to say. This gives the reader a feeling of security – as if she or he is in safe hands. Success with Hill works on two levels, responding to what he says and considering the way that he says it. I occasionally try to write poetry and therefore have an interest in the practice and technique of those that I admire. One element of success with Hill is evaluating his technique and assessing whether the poem is both technically efficient and beautiful- his criteria, not mine. Success comes when I feel that I’ve made a reasonable assessment. Some of this doesn’t take long, ‘Oraclau’ is obviously less than technically efficient and this gets in the way of what Hill might be trying to say. Other judgements are more nuanced, I wouldn’t have addressed my critics from within ‘The Triumph of Love’ but that doesn’t stop it from being a brilliant piece of work. I admire ‘Clavics’ more than I did when it was published but I’m still not sure about the use of patterns. So, successful reading as a practitioner in the case of Hill is wanting and being able to continue to think about technique and tactics.

I’ve said before that I don’t have any kind of faith and that Hill and I occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. I don’t feel challenged by his high Anglicanism nor by his odd brand of ‘hierarchical’ Toryism because both are wrong in the sense of being factually incorrect so success here is not about being challenged about my beliefs and prejudices but is more about what poetry can and should do. In general terms I agree with Hill about poetry and about literature and I like the way that he reads. Success here is about being able to place myself in the hands of a fellow traveller who knows far more than I about the things that interest me.

The sense of success that I get from reading Hill comes from this complex sense of identification and/or comparison which usually leads to other things. To give a recent example, reading ‘Clavics’ and Hill’s identification with Yeats has led me to look again at his work.

I’ve written before about the challenges presented by ‘The Anathemata’ and success here is more about throwing yourself into what’s been said and trying to get hold of the extent of Jones’ ambition. As with the work of Prynne, engagement is more about the way in which language is used and the variations in those techniques issues of meaning take a secondary place. In his introduction Jones indicates his intention to set out his personal cultural background and interests in poetic form so we have the Roman Catholic faith, Welshness, London, the Roman empire, prehistory and seafaring as well as material from various chronicles and romances.

Success with Jones works on two levels, the ability to immerse yourself in what is being said and the extent of your willingness to explore further some of the issues and subjects covered. I like to think that I succeed by the first criterion in that I can now, with the help of the notes, follow the flow of the poetry and visualise most of what is described. I have however ‘failed’ on the second standard in that after the first couple of readings I resolved to know more about Catholic liturgy as well as Welshness. I have the books sitting on my hard drive but have yet to look at any of them.

I think what I’m trying to say about all three of these ‘difficult’ practitioners is that successful reading starts with a degree of acceptance of them on their own terms and being interested in how those terms are involved in the poetry making rather than being primarily concerned with either meaning or intention.

Poems, Sections and Bits, a few technical questions for Geoffrey Hill.

Just before Xmas I bought the Clutag CD recording of the reading that Hill gave in February 2006 to launch ‘Without Title’. As well as being an absolute delight, (apart from the destruction of one poem by the great Eugenio Montale) the way that Hill introduces some of his publications has caused me to think more about the sequence/collection and section/poem terminology. Before we go any further I need to observe that this disturbance is of a different order to that caused by Prynne’s omission of the penultimate poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence in his recentish Paris reading.

The problem is caused here by the fact that I thought I understood the nouns used to describe these things. I thought that I knew that:

  • a number of poems published in a single book but without a unifying theme is called a collection as in John Matthias’ ‘Kedging’ or Hill’s ‘Without Title’;
  • a number of things published with a unifying themes is called a sequence and the things are called poems or prose poems;
  • sequences and collections may be divided into sub-groups of poems, these groups are known as sections;
  • parts of sequences or collections are never called bits because the term is too general to be helpful.

It turns out that this is not the view of our latest poetic knight and current Professor of Poetry at Oxford so I may well be wrong on all counts but nevertheless the questions remain. In the reading (referred to by Hill as a ‘recital’) he refers to the poems in ‘Mercian Hymns’, ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’, ‘The Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ as ‘sections’. In the introduction to ‘The Orchards of Syon’ he refers to the poems as ‘poems’ and then rapidly corrects himself to ‘sections’. The poems in ‘Comus’ are referred to as ‘bits’.

Let’s start with ‘Mercian Hymns’ which is a sequence of prose paragraphs or prose poems about Offa, one of our first kings. It’s brilliance lies in the fact that the past and the present are blurred and merged to create an account of England and a study in power. It is one of the very best things produced since 1945 and the argument about the poem / section terminology is less relevant because the each page carries a sequential Roman numeral and contains two or more paragraphs which would need to be called ‘prose poems’ which would be clumsy / inept / naff etc.

The ‘Charles Peguy’ is a sequence and is defined by Hill as “my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat'”, it consists of ten poems each made up of a varying number of quatrains. I was going to make a case for each of these as autonomous pieces that can stand in their own right until I recalled that part 4 runs on to part 5 as in:

So you spoke to the blood. so you have risen
above all of that and fallen flat on your face

5

among the beetroots, where we are constrained
to leave you sleeping and to step aside

So, parts 4 and 5 may be sections of one autonomous poem whereas the rest are all ‘stand alone’ poems within the homage (sequence).

Moving on to ‘The Triumph of Love’, I can make a case for all of the numbered ‘sections’ as autonomous poems but I do have a problem with CXIII which in its entirety is “Boerenverdriet? You eat it – it’s Dutch liverwurst” which is a footnote to the use of the word in CXI. Admittedly some of the very short ‘sections’ are a couple of lines of snatched monologue but they can still stand as poems. The other puzzle with CXIII is that the rest of the gloss to the sequence is provided by a fictional editor whose interjections are placed in brackets within the poem. This may be due to the fact that another gloss is provided for the next word – “Lothian [Macsickker – Ed]” and Hill didn’t want things to get too cluttered.

As well as being as good as but very different from ‘Mercian Hymns’ this is obviously a sequence built around a number themes but which presents an oddly optimistic and/or redemptive take on the atrocity-laden twentieth century. It is true that occasional reference is made to stand up comedy and Gracie Fields the singer is deliberately confused with Gracie Fields the boat but I’ve just re-read the sequence again and am now more convinced of its brilliance and its audacity.

The poem / section slip of the tongue when introducing ‘The Orchards of Syon’ is perhaps indicative of Hill’s uncertainty with these terms but the use of ‘bits’ for ‘Scenes from Comus’ is odd because there may be degree of disdain or self deprecation going on – it is the least represented book in the Selected and Hill does quote A N Wilson’s abusive reaction to one of the poems but he does read 4 ‘Comus’ which is as many as ‘The Triumph of Love’ and two more than ‘Mercian Hymns’.

The significant difference with ‘Comus is that it is divided into three sections and each section contains poems in the same format, section one has all ten line poems consisting of three three-line verses followed by one line on its own, each poem in the second section is a single nine-line stanza and each poem in the third consists of four three-line verses. Each section has a title and each of these relates to the masque, a type of performance popular in the 17th century.

‘Scenes from Comus’ has received large amounts of critical flak on both sides of the Atlantic but I think it’s wonderful and written by a poet who is confident of his skill and legacy and (this is important) is beginning to be comfortable in his skin. So, why ‘bits’? It’s not as if Hill is unfamiliar with all the other terms that he could have and the term does suggest something trivial and expendable but this is at odds with putting so many of the poems into the reading.

I will continue thinking of poems that happen to be components of a sequence as poems, I’ll also carry on using sections as the term for groups of poems within a sequence and I don’t think I’ll ever use the term ‘bit’ because it doesn’t seem either useful or appropriate.

Writing this has made me realise that the sequence word contains a degree of complexities and blurrings that I’ll try and write about in the next few weeks.

The attentive among you will have noticed that I’ve missed out ‘Speech! Speech!’ but that’s because they’re poems- all of them.